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Extended Thoughts on ‘The Parent Trap’

The Parent Trap

Directed by Nancy Meyers

Written by David Swift, Nancy Meyers, and Charles Shyer

Starring Lindsay Lohan, Dennis Quaid, Natasha Richardson

Who is The Parent Trap for, really? The more I think about the plot structure of the 1961 and 1998 films from Walt Disney Pictures, it all starts to unravel. Not so fast, you say. The movie’s for kids! And why wouldn’t it be? Both films are about two preteen girls, one from American and one from London, who discover while at a summer camp getaway that a) they’re identical twins who’ve never met until just now and b) it’s up to them to reunite their estranged parents. The movie’s for kids. That’s that. Right? But think about the second half of each film, which shifts the focus from the kids to the parents. In the original, the parents are played by Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara. In the 1998 version, the parents are played by Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson. In both cases, the idea is that the kids are going to not-so-subtly push these two back into a romantic relationship, thus breaking off their father’s impending wedding. Because of this shift, the movie changes from being a goofy kid-centric comedy into a romantic comedy for and about adults.

So who is this movie for? I’m not so sure. I know that the 1998 version has a pretty solid reputation, partly because it introduced Lindsay Lohan to a mainstream audience. As much as she may get negative press in the tabloids these days–and she’s been in a fair bit of trouble, of course–Lohan had (and still perhaps does have) the talent to be a legitimately fascinating young actress. Because she began moving up through the Disney ranks and seemed like she had the chops to be something more, there were comparisons to Jodie Foster being made, who was once a Disney starlet, as surprising as that may be to believe for those who aren’t as aware of older Disney films. As much as people like the film, I fear that it’s yet another movie that falls apart upon any serious critical consideration. As I mentioned on the show, this is perhaps an unexpected but very appropriate entry in the “Leave your brain at the door” genre of filmmaking. And as you may know by now, I hate that stigma.

But this is almost certainly a case where very little thought was put into the mechanics of the story and the characters’ motivations. In some ways, watching this new film only highlighted a lot of flaws that are present in both films. While this version does improve upon the original some of the time–even though Lohan is American, her ability to switch from an American accent to a British accent is far more accomplished than what Hayley Mills attempted–it doesn’t stray too far from the basic plot. So questions of logic started cropping up as I went through the two-plus hours of this version. Why would anyone hide a sibling’s existence? Why would the parents of these two children decide–clearly consciously, together–to never reveal their shared relationship or identity? What do these people gain from being so secretive? Why don’t the kids ever wonder about these questions?

I am, perhaps, demanding a level of complexity from this film or story that the filmmakers have absolutely zero intention of providing. Nancy Meyers, as director and co-writer, doesn’t feel completely in her element as a filmmaker with this film. She and co-writer Charles Shyer had worked on the two 1990s-era Father of the Bride films, which were family-friendly but were also not child-centric. And it shows in the dialogue in this film, from the very beginning as when Lohan (as the American Hallie) admonishes two of her peers for being like Lucy and Ethel. You know, Lucy and Ethel! From the TV show I Love Lucy, which all 11-year old girls in 1998 were big fans of! When we see Hallie later admit a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio, it makes sense for the character and time period. But more often than not, the way that Hallie and her British counterpart, Annie, talk to each other and everyone else in the film is unreal. It’s closer to the way an alien would imagine a human would talk.

The cast in this film is, outside of the main trio–Lohan, Quaid, and Richardson–not particularly memorable. And the movie’s too long by about a half-hour. So it’s saying something that those three actors are enough to make the entire film worth watching. Because this movie is just filled with unanswered, unconsidered questions. The way these people act makes no sense, for example. As much as I harped on the adult relationship in the original–the father is set to marry a beautiful young woman who’s basically a golddigger–it’s even less believable here. In both films, granted, it makes next to no sense of why the father would stand this harpy. Could it be that the guy wants to be a daddy of the sugar variety? Yeah, sure, but there’s nothing on the screen to make us think this. We can leap to that conclusion, but we’d be basing it on the way men act in the real world as opposed to how the men in these films act.

But in this movie, the only romantic tension is false, as Quaid and Richardson never create the same level of bickering tension that Keith and O’Hara did in the original. Of course, in the original, the audience still knew the parents would get back together by the end; seeing as the whole concept of the movie was mending a broken home, and it’s from Disney, not ending happily would’ve been an outrageous leap. That said, you don’t need as much of an explanation about why the characters played by Keith and O’Hara split. Their constantly on-edge chemistry is enough to make you believe that the two fought intensely when they were younger, even if the topic of the fights was superfluous. These characters felt like people who argued enough to get divorced.

That’s not the case with Quaid and Richardson, who feel like they’re as tired of the romantic machinations as the audience is, especially Quaid. More to the point, Meyers and Shyer never do enough work to expand these characters, to answer the question: why did they ever break up? The relationship that Quaid has with his character’s fiancee, played by Elaine Hendrix, is similarly disaffected as it was in the original. You never once know why he’s marrying this woman. But you never get why he’s not still married to Richardson. Nick and Elizabeth, their characters, met on a cruise ship, got married on said cruise, had kids, spent some time together afterwards, but split up while Hallie and Annie were young. Why did they split up? Oh, you know, they said things to each other. As soon as they lock eyes in the present, however, they’re literally falling over each other in admiration. Zero tension.

And that’s my big problem with both versions of The Parent Trap. They are tension-free. And you could argue that almost every film from the Walt Disney Company (or, at least, Walt Disney Pictures) is bound to be tension-free in that they’ll all end happily. Sometimes, it’s less about the destination of the story, and more about the journey. The problem with these movies is that there is no journey. There are sequences, there are setpieces, and there’s a high concept that attempts to drive this film. But that’s not a journey. The basic concept seems to exist solely to show off the filmmaking technique of two characters being played by the same person in the same shot. As much as Lindsay Lohan is more charming than Hayley Mills, a technique does not a good movie make.